Regions of the Vaucluse
Haut Vaucluse, also known as Provence des Papes or The Papal Enclaves, covers the region of vineyards and estates once controlled by the Avignon popes. The northernmost section of Vaucluse, it includes some of the best Côte de Rhône vineyards – Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, large areas in lavender cultivation and the wonderful Roman towns of Orange and Vaison la Romaine. Hiking or rock climbing on Les Dentelles de Montmirail – so named because of the lacy limestone formations at the summit – offers great views of Mont Ventoux and the surrounding countryside.
Mont Ventoux, Comtat Venaissin, Pays de Sault
The Comtat Venaissin was given to the Avignon popes in 1274 by King Philip (known by the delightfully silly epithet of Philip the Rash). It formed the majority of their income-producing vineyards and agricultural estates. Primarily an agricultural area, the villages here are rich in medieval and Roman history. Mont Ventoux, at more than 6,200 feet, is sometimes snow-capped. The name is a Provençal variation of the French word for windy – venteux – and from late autumn to early spring, a windplume of snow from the summit can be seen from most vantage points. Part of the mountain is a UNESCO Protected Biosphere. At the changing of the seasons, Mont Ventoux slices through the climate; it is always warmer and sunnier on the southern slope. Villages with picturesque squares and evocative names like St. Pierre de Vassols, Modène and Mazan – often little more than a few houses, a church with a wrought iron bell tower, and a café or bar tabac – hug its lower slopes and hide in its folds, offering lots of possibilities for exploration.
Below it, the Côte de Ventoux vineyards and the fruit orchards of cherries, apricots and figs turn red and golden in the autumn. The area is rich in cycling and hiking paths – including mountain bike trails down the mountain (for the brave) and the Mont Ventoux circuit (for the very fit or slightly mad!). Lavender covers the hills in the Pays de Sault at the eastern reach of this area.
Pays de Sorgues, Monts de Vaucluse
Despite the use of “mountain,” or sometimes “plateau,” in its name, the range that gives this département its name is a mass of small hills and bluffs hugging tight little valleys. Some of the prettiest perched villages in France, including Gordes and the ochre-colored Roussillon, are scattered along the crests of these steep hills. So are Roman antiquities and the dome-shaped dry-stone shelters called bories (see pages 114-15). L’Isle sur la Sorgue, a village situated on islands between five branches of the Sorgue River, is the unlikely antiquing capital of Provence.
The Montagne du Lubéron
The Lubéron, separated from the Vaucluse by the broad expanse of the Calavon Valley and the Imergue, spreads across the landscape like a giant slab of bread dough. The mountain is divided in two by the Lourmarin Valley and the Aigue Brun River, with the higher peaks to the east and the Petit Luberon to the west. The entire area is included in a regional nature park, criss-crossed with well-marked hiking and cycling trails, including an outstanding, 100-km/62-mile cycle circuit. It also has some outstanding rock climbing, notably at Buoux. Near Rustrel, the Provençal Colorado, a man-made “canyon” created by several hundred years of ochre mining, is a fascinating and colorful hike. The climate here is more Mediterranean than the rest of Vaucluse. Drier and warmer, it is protected by massed hills from the Rhône Valley’s Mistral winds. Côte de Lubéron villages on the north slope, following the path of the narrow, bamboo-lined Calavon River, can be quiet and magically strange to cycle through. Once again, part of the Luberon is a UNESCO Protected Biosphere.
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